Phil Norman Tentet, Then & Now (MAMA Records)
This album’s tune list could create an expectation that we’re in for just another trip down the memory lane of modern jazz classics. No, Norman’s ensemble combines gifted players and arrangers with fresh approaches to familiar music.
Geoff Stradling adds a bridge section in his arrangement of “Johnny’s Theme,” the Tonight Show’s introductory and closing music. This may be more of a show business classic than a jazz classic, but he expands the piece’s musical content and, therefore, its possibilities for improvisation. In their solos, trumpeter Ron Stout, alto saxophonist Rusty Higgins and guitarist Larry Koonse take advantage of the meaty harmonies, with Stout’s fluidity increasing as he moves through the changes. Stradling inserts a mildly disruptive “shave and a haircut six bits” fillip near the end, possibly in tribute to Johnny Carson’s humor—or Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen’s.
From “Take Five” to “Poinciana” to “Line For Lyons” through a dozen classic compositions, the arrangers evoke the original recordings while personalizing them with new instrumental textures and, in some cases, rhythmic departures. There’s no doubt that in “Lullaby of Birdland” it’s the George Shearing Quintet you’re hearing in the first chorus. Then, arranger Scott Whitfield expands the ensemble to set up solos by pianist Christian Jacob, Higgins on alto, Whitfield on trombone, guitarist Koonse, and Brad Dutz on vibes. Whitfield closes with what he calls “George’s original ‘shout chorus’” and tags the piece with his own shout chorus that incorporates the contrast of a three-chord piano tag, summoning thoughts of Count Basie.
In “Concorde,” Joey Sellers arranges one of John Lewis’s most evocative Modern Jazz Quartet compositions. His use of the inner harmonic tensions of the piece inspires splendid solos from Jacob, Dutz, bassist Kevin Axt, Stout, Higgins on flute and Roger Neumann on bass clarinet. The bass clarinet gives the ensemble color, fiber and intriguing movement in the lines Sellers wrote for Neumann.
Neumann arranged “Line For Lyons,” a staple of Gerry Mulligan’s early 1950s quartet with trumpeter Chet Baker. He harmonized Mulligan’s and Baker’s original solos with additional horns before providing space for new solos by Neumann on baritone sax and Stout on trumpet. It is one of the most affecting tracks on the album.
Stout and his frequent trumpet colleague Carl Saunders have exemplary solos on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca” and team up for a closing statement that would have earned smiles from Gillespie if he had heard it. Saunders is fleet, lyrical and rangy in his solo on “Poinciana,” arranged by Jacob to reflect but not imitate the famous Ahmad Jamal version. Higgins and Koonse also solo.
There is a wide variety of textures in Jacob’s arrangement of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five,” with Rusty Higgins including in his first solo an approximation of one of Desmond’s trips into the stratosphere of the alto saxophone and in his second an inkling of Desmond’s humor. Jacob begins and ends the arrangement with echoes of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s celebrated recording of the piece.
The other pieces are Whitfield’s arrangement of Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe;” Kim Richmond’s chart on Miles Davis’s “So What; Francisco Torres’ on “Chano Pozo’s and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Soul Sauce” (made famous by Cal Tjader); and Jacob’s of Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus & Lucy.”
The Phil Norman Tentet is in fact an eleventet, if there is such a word. Norman plays tenor saxophone and clarinet. His only solo here is on tenor sax in Henry Mancini’s theme from The Pink Panther,” which has the baritone sax of the arranger, Neumann, in interplay (emphasis on “play”) with Norman. It’s great fun.
Personnel: Phil Norman, tenor sax, clarinet, leader; Carl Saunders, Ron Stout, trumpet; Scott Whitfield, trombone; Rusty Higgins, alto and soprano sax, flute; Roger Neumann, baritone sax, bass clarinet, flute; Christian Jacob, piano; Larry Koonse, guitar; Kevin Axt, bass; Dick Weller, drums; Brad Dutz, percussion, vibes.
A note for those who like information about what they’re hearing. The program booklet for this album goes against the record industry trend toward vacuousness. It includes biographies of the composers, bios and photos of the musicians, and notes by the arrangers about how and why they wrote their charts. It also has solo credits for the twelve tracks. Hooray for MAMA.